Everyone agrees: it’s about to explode

RANJIT HOSKOTE

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IN August 2009, as a response to a hubbub of voices demanding to know why India did not have its own national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, I wrote an article for The Sunday Times of India, arguing that we ought never to have one. My stance was polemical: such a pavilion would make sense only if it could embody a compelling art historical argument, I argued, which it could do only if it were emancipated from the constraints of India’s official culture as well as exigencies of the Indian art market. Since I was almost certain that these conditions could never be met, the matter rested there – until, some months later, to my mingled dismay and delight, I found that my pronouncements had borne unexpected fruit. The Lalit Kala Akademi, the National Academy of Fine Arts, invited me to curate the India Pavilion for the 54th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia 2011. This would be the first time in the 116-year history of the Venice Biennale that India would have a proper national pavilion of its own.

The national pavilion may no longer enjoy its former pre-eminence as a node of location and unit of cultural measurement on the global biennale circuit; but it retains its grandeur and centrality in the oldest and most auratic biennale of all, la Biennale di Venezia, whose inaugural edition opened its doors to an international public in the summer of 1895. And while the nation state is not the only or even the major locus of activity for many artists in our fluid, entangled and transcultural present, the national pavilion does retain its relevance as a site where the idea of the nation – and its troubled relationship to culture – can be subjected to productive engagement, to debate and experiment.1

 

The logic of national representation at a biennale obliges us to attend to the question of how we can best represent a specific moment in the art historical life of a nation. In what way can any selection of artists or art works ‘represent’ a nation? The path of least resistance, for a curator confronted with these questions, is to reach for the most characteristic practices and most identifiable artists associated with a national art scene: to identify and throw into high contour the key tendencies and ascendancies that have dominated that scene. A variation on this approach would be to picture a national art scene as a balance of stakes, illustrating its various contending centres, its alternative subcultures. Or then, in defiance of such cautious or merely lazy metonymy, a curator might decide to mobilize a partisan counter-choice: to cast an emergent or contrarian position into the teeth of orthodox opinion.

In all these cases, the source of value for the curatorial choice lies in a machinery of validation: whether platforms of circulation such as the gallery system or the museum circuit; venues of opinion such as journals; hierarchies of recognition that evolve around awards, fellowships, residencies and commissions; or a combination of all these. In the Indian context, the machinery of validation straddles two institutional frameworks: the gallery system and the auction house circuit, which are the principal manifestations of the art market; and an emergent network of residencies and fellowships, which is part of a global ecology of artistic exchanges and collaborative projects.

 

A majority of the Indian viewing public looks to the art market to define excellence and relevance in art, and takes its cue from the galleries and the auctions. However, if we were to follow Arthur C. Danto in his celebrated description of the art world as being, above all, a conversation in which the rules of making and recognizing art are continuously negotiated, we would see that the Indian art market is only the loudest circle of speech within a much larger conversation that includes critics, curators, theorists, historians, enthusiasts, and ordinary viewers and readers who participate in cultural life, rather than the economy of culture.2

 

In this loudest circle of speech, art is metered through a speculator’s enumeration of winners and losers: nothing more complex than a ‘Top Ten’. As this list-making reflex becomes entrenched, its expectations masquerade as criteria, and only those artists who meet them pass the test of relevance. Many of these become ‘names’ on a self-perpetuating register, associated with the narratives of success; their artistic gifts are less important, in the perception of patrons and commentators, than the scale of their operations, their social saliency, the portability of their images, their ubiquity at home and overseas.

Installation view of India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011). Praneet Soi’s mural (L), Gigi Scaria’s interactive video installation (R), Desire Machine Collective’s 35 mm film (rear, L), and Zarina Hashmi’s ensemble of works on paper and sculpture (rear, R).

My avowed aim, when given the mandate of curating the India Pavilion for the 54th Venice Biennale, was to mark a sharp rupture with these pre-existing notions of how India’s national art scene should be represented. Since I have long argued that contemporary Indian art is defined by multiple horizons of value, I wished to disclose artistic practices from locations other than those synonymous with the Indian art market: practices that transit among disparate economies of image production, traverse asymmetric cultural and political situations; that are nourished by diverse circulations of philosophical ideas; and that grow, often, from improvisational forms of research and collaboration.

 

Accordingly, as my rhetorical trope for this pavilion, I chose the non sequitur; that which does not necessarily follow from something said earlier in the conventional flow of conversation, an unprecedented suggestion that overturns the fixities of an existing language game. The non sequitur is a departure phrased at a deliberate tangent, a shifting of the coordinates, a calling of attention to alternative loci of significance. In this spirit of making a strong and contrarian symbolic statement about contemporary Indian art, I declined to present a large number of artists to illustrate India’s burgeoning art scene.

Praneet Soi’s untitled on-site mural at the India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011).

Instead, I chose four powerful artistic positions, each of them conceptually rigorous, sophisticated in their aesthetic strategies, and robust in expressive power: all of them unexpected choices from the viewpoint of conventional wisdom. While some of these positions have been incorporated respectfully into the gallery system, both globally and in India, and have received the attention of museums, foundations and galleries, they have resisted being neutralized by the system’s embrace. Rather, they enjoy the critical acclaim and intellectual freedom that attend dynamic practices that retain the capacity to transform themselves, instead of settling for anxiously maintained formulae.

 

Zarina Hashmi, Praneet Soi, Gigi Scaria, and the Desire Machine Collective act as compass points for an alternative atlas of references. An idiosyncratic line of latitude connects them across the globe, running west-east to link their theatres of life and work across New York, Amsterdam/Kolkata, New Delhi/Kerala, and Guwahati. To my mind, it was vital to honour the historic occasion of India’s first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale by proposing such positions, which demonstrated the linkages between contemporary Indian art and global art at large, while retaining the distinctiveness of sensibilities engaged with the South Asian predicament.

 

My fundamental curatorial proposition was that the India Pavilion would serve as a laboratory where the ‘idea of India’ – to deploy a phrase made famous by the political scientist and essayist Sunil Khilnani – could be tested.3 Through the four artistic positions presented, I brought into play some of the key propositions concerning the nature of contemporary India; each incarnated a way in which the received notions of India could be pushed, questioned or opened up. We may note, among these artistic positions, a shift from an emphasis on a fixed and a priori national identity to a positionality that extends itself across plural anchorages of belonging. Such a shift allows us to view India as a conceptual entity that is not territorially bounded, but which extends outward into a global space of the imagination: it assumes the form of arguments, dreams, memories and visions. The artists I chose for the India Pavilion explored complex histories and volatile lifeworlds. Taken together, Hashmi, Soi, Scaria and the Desire Machine Collective convey impulses from diverse regional modernities, religious lineages, subcultural locations, aesthetic choices, and philosophical standpoints.

 

Zarina Hashmi (born in Aligarh, 1937; lives in New York), works across printmaking and sculpture realized in various media. Her art emerges from the quest of a subjectivity profoundly shaped by the trauma of the 1947 Partition of British India. In a profound sense, it embodies India’s birth moment, when Independence and Partition occurred together, producing lifelong questions of identity and belonging for South Asian Muslims. To this crisis of self-definition was added the experience of diaspora, as Hashmi embarked on a life of travel. The map, the architectural layout of a home, the border and the journey are her recurrent motifs, each austerely yet delicately delineated. The act of holding on to places, things, experiences and sensations by naming occurs constantly in her art. She crosses uncertain terrain, looking for lost countries that might offer the nomad an oasis or anchorage. Her work also evinces a fascination with epiphany and illumination, whether these spring from the decipherment of calligraphy, a cascade of goldleaf covered bulbs or a rosary, or a tablet woven from gold and light. I chose three of Hashmi’s works for the India Pavilion: the major 36-piece Home is a Foreign Place (1997), Noor (2008), and Blinding Light (2010).

Praneet Soi (born in Kolkata, 1971; lives in Amsterdam and Kolkata) is a painter, sculptor and mixed-media artist. His transcultural practice, based on engagements with both global and local economies of production, testifies to a significant transformation of the studio. Instead of a single fixed address, the studio, for Soi, is a series of fluid situations, organized around interactions with collaborators, assistants, technical specialists, and such interlocutors as architects and curators. His studio practice refers, also, to a series of open-ended researches expressed as drawings, photographic archives, notations, and preparatory layouts. In geographical terms, his studio can stretch from a biennale site in Europe to the small-scale industrial units of Kumartuli, northern Kolkata, where he works on projects with sculptors who make traditional festival icons, letterpress printers, and other entrepreneurs.

 

Soi has been preoccupied with war as an existential condition, as manifested through his figures of refugees, people escaping catastrophe, and victims of bombardment: in his drawings and paintings, self-portraits are often wrapped around or inserted through these figures. In scale, Soi shuttles between the miniature and the mural, the drawing-as-memoir to the monument-as-trace. His contribution to the India Pavilion was a new recension of a slide-projection work, Kumartuli Printer (2010/ 2011), and a 54-foot L-shaped mural that he painted on-site.

 
 

Still from Desire Machine Collective’s film Residue (35 mm, 39 min), shown at the India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011).

Gigi Scaria (painter, sculptor and video artist, born in Kothanalloor, Kerala, 1973; now lives in New Delhi) reflects on the complexity of everyday life across social strata and political asymmetries in metropolitan India. Processing the architecture of housing and entertainment, probing the phantasmagoria thrown up by the real estate boom and the fantasia of delusional urban planning, Scaria sets, within this larger armature, the intimate textures of personal life, as constructed by migrants and transients attracted by the promise of the metropolis.

 

As a southerner long resident in the north of India, Scaria has a precise purchase on the sociological processes and psychological pressures of internal migration. In his video works, especially, he plays on the politics of everyday discourse as an exchange between dissimilars, a tangled conversation. The productive tension in Scaria’s art is that between discursivity and the visceral, things put into words and things that slip beneath the radar of language: the aspirations, anxieties, resentments and resignations that form the substance of much metropolitan existence. Scaria’s practice also attests to an expanded form of the studio, as when he works with a set of collaborators, ranging from software programmers to production engineers. For the India Pavilion, he created a 3-screen interactive video installation, Elevator from the Subcontinent (2011).

 

The Desire Machine Collective (DMC), established by Sonal Jain (born Shillong, 1975) and Mriganka Madhukaillya (born Jorhat, 1978), is a media collective based in Guwahati, Assam. DMC works across film, installation and public space projects. While committing itself to the necessary interiority of its own art, it articulates a need for interlocution by organizing workshops and conferences at Periferry, a residency platform based on a boat moored on the banks of the river Brahmaputra. DMC’s activity signals a vista of artistic production and critical energy in the northeast of India, a region that has suffered official neglect and is often regarded as separate from the mainstream.

Visitors inside Gigi Scaria’s interactive video installation, Elevator from the Subcontinent, at the India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011).

In a context where political conditions obtrude dramatically into everyday life, DMC bypasses the all-too-obvious choice of creating an art that is, in a generic sense, political. Instead, it chooses to layer the viewing encounter with intensities of awareness and sensation, inviting viewers to attend in a full-bodied manner to subtle shifts in a sensorial environment they are invited to occupy, whether this is a sound installation in a street or a film based in an abandoned thermal power plant. The Desire Machine Collective was represented, in the India Pavilion, by a 35 mm realization of the latter project: the film Residue (2010/ 2011).

 

As is evident, these artists do not guide us to an end-point or discursive destination called the ‘nation’. Rather, they return us to starting points: to see if we can re-imagine what it means to belong to India. They achieve this by adding, to the figure of the citizen, the figures of the participant and the contributor. In a world that offers many alternative affiliations, they have chosen to remain connected to India, to take part in its ongoing theatre of self-fashioning, to contribute to its cultural life, without being conscripted into any narrow ideology of the nation.

In the early 21st century, it is evident that the nation cannot simply be an apparatus of conscription or a synoptic totality that overrides its heterogeneous contents. It is the product of the political and cultural imagination: an administrative, juridical and territorial entity, to be sure, but also an entity materialized through the accretion of mythologies of identity and self-assertion. And increasingly, as diverse internal energies manifest themselves and a polyphony of voices begins to emerge from within the nation, it becomes transformed into an array of fragments, each casting illumination on a possible whole. This understanding informed the title of the pavilion, Every-one Agrees: It’s About To Explode.

 

My eye fell on this sentence from a book by an anonymous group of theorists called The Invisible Committee, which was shared with me by Mriganka Madhukaillya of the Desire Machine Collective. Opening the book, I read: ‘Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode. It is acknowledged, with a serious and self-important look, in the corridors of the Assembly, just as yesterday it was repeated in the cafés… The newspapers conscientiously draw up the list of causes for the sudden disquiet. There is the financial crisis… the failure of the educational system… the existence of a youth to which no political representation corresponds… what power is confronting is neither just another crisis, nor just a succession of chronic problems, of more or less anticipated disturbances, but a singular peril: that a form of conflict has emerged, and positions have been taken up, that are no longer manageable.’4

It was a fortuitous, magical moment: transposed to our predicament, this messianic passage held a reservoir of multiple meanings. It could speak of a society whose confident energies, simmering discontents, plural and productive articulations are all set to explode. It could speak of a national art world whose heterogeneities are on the point of bursting in all directions. It could speak, also, of a cluster of ideas about identity and subjectivity, post-postcolonial location and transcultural shape-shifting, a combustible contest among self-conceptions whose time has irresistibly come.

 

On a research visit to Venice in the autumn of 2010, I chose the 250-square metre site for the India Pavilion in the Artiglierie section of the Arsenale. It occupied a salient position in the Arsenale, the former shipbuilding yard and weapons store of the navy of the Venetian Republic, La Serenissima (15th-19th centuries), when it was a great trading and maritime power that dominated the Mediterranean, before it collapsed under Napoleon’s attacks, succumbed to an Austrian invasion and was eventually annexed into the newly formed nation-state of Italy in 1866. The Arsenale is a site of fantasia: gritty, redolent of history, its exposed concrete and unfaced brick walls eloquent, its huge columns and vast empty bays underwriting the magic of the Biennale. The constraints of the site summoned forth a curatorial response that the cultural theorist and curator Nancy Adajania and I have designated as ‘ju-jitsu’, a working around rather than against the site, a mode of using the power of the site to coax it into cooperation.5

 

My first aim was to develop a conversational plan among the four artistic positions. I designed the pavilion along a quadrature, dividing the space into four quadrants of nearly equal quadrants: one diagonal connecting the open spaces and near-monochromatic, graphic programmes of Hashmi and Soi; the other diagonal connecting the enclosures of Scaria and DMC, Scaria invoking a visual stratigraphy of class with his elevator, DMC resonant with the aura of industrial ruin and the remainders of hubris. The quadrature itself was intended to relay the deep spatial archetypes in dwelling in Indian culture: the mandala or universal map of Hindu-Buddhist sacred architecture, the chaharbagh or quadrated garden of paradise from Islamic architecture. At its basic level, the India Pavilion was designed as a cosmogram. Simultaneously, however, it was intended to act as a space for the release of various temporalities, the compressed histories of Partition, diaspora, travel, apprenticeship and conversation across borders; and, as it viscerally allowed for this, the pavilion was also a chronogram.

 

Beyond this spatial level, at the performative levels, the India Pavilion was intended to play the roles of a laboratory (as I have already indicated), a school, and a stage. As laboratory, it test-ran the idea of a non-territorial cultural citizenship (such as Homi K. Bhabha has been considering), under which a cultural practitioner may live away from India and yet belong to its extended national space in crucial ways, by affirmation and critical affiliation (Hashmi, Soi). The pavilion also test-ran the conception of a multilocal cosmopolitanism, one that is independent of a metropolitan basis (DMC); and in its acceptance of strangeness as a dynamic for creativity, whether in the form of encounters with other milieux, societies, discourses, disciplines and specializations, it emphasized the need to redraw the geographies within which we constitute our selfhood (Scaria, Soi).

Visitors viewing Zarina Hashmi’s works (from R to L), Home is a Foreign Place, Blinding Light, and Noor, at the India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011).

As a school, the pavilion catalyzed several forms of learning and extended pedagogy, parallel and sometimes convergent, for all participants: artists, curator, producer, collaborators, and assistants. The pavilion acted as a production studio for various refinements of practice, the improvisation of new protocols and mechanisms, and extensions of various modes of research, design and delivery.

 

As a stage, the India Pavilion marked India’s return to the Venice Biennale after a long absence, and, for the first time, with a professionally conceived and curated exhibition commissioned by the appropriate institution, the Lalit Kala Akademi, the National Academy of Fine Arts. This performative dimension of India’s presence in Venice is vital. It marked the renewal of an almost forgotten internationalist momentum (India has had various forms of official exhibition presence at the 1954, 1956, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1978 and 1982 editions of the Venice Biennale, routed through the Embassy of India in Rome). It thus carried forward the desire to formulate a claim to assertive participation from the global South, best embodied by the visionary Indian writer and cultural organizer, Mulk Raj Anand, in Triennale India, which he founded in New Delhi (1968) and of which the Lalit Kala Akademi has since hosted 11 editions. I have elsewhere referred to Triennale India as a major example of the ‘biennale of resistance’, and it was a matter of significance to Indian art that these two histories, those of Venice and of New Delhi, met in the 2011 pavilion.6 It was my hope that this encounter would produce fresh narratives, renewed conversations, and spirited exchanges of perspective.

This India Pavilion was meant to incarnate what Nancy Adajania and I have elsewhere termed an nth field, a site of unexpected transcultural encounter and coproduction. ‘In structural terms,’ we have written, ‘nth fields are receptive and internally flexible institutions, rhizomatic and self-sustaining associations, or periodic platforms. In spatial terms, these are either programmatically nomadic in the way they manifest themselves, or extend themselves through often unpredictable transregional initiatives, or are geographically situated in sites to which none (or few) of their participants are affiliated by citizenship or residence. Temporally, the rhythm of these engagements is varied and can integrate multiple time lines for conception and production. These nth fields certainly throw into high relief the vexed questions that haunt the global system of cultural production: Who is the audience for contemporary global art? … Is it possible to translate the intellectual sources of a regional modernity into globally comprehensible terms? What forms of critical engagement should artistic labour improvise, as it chooses to become complicit with aspirational and developmentalist capital and its managers across the world?’7

 

Thus the India Pavilion was meant to pose questions, not only to the nation state, but also to the current system of global art, which, despite its revolutionary potential, remains premised on a neoliberal world economy and a narrative grounded in the global North.

 

* Photographs courtesy Team India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011).

Footnotes:

1. This essay draws on my curatorial essay for the India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale. See: Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Pavilion as Laboratory: A Tool Box’, Everyone Agrees: It’s About To Explode.’ Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 2011.

2. See Arthur C. Danto, ‘The Artworld’, The Journal of Philosophy 61(19), October 1965, pp. 571-584, at http://faculty.georgetown. edu/irvinem/visualarts/Danto-Artworld.pdf

3. Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India. Penguin, New Delhi, 1998. In a passage that intimately informed the India Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, Khilnani writes: ‘But ultimately, the viability – and most importantly, the point – of India’s democracy will rest on its capacity to sustain internal diversity, on its ability to avoid giving reason to groups within the citizen body to harbour dreams of having their own exclusive nation states… There is no ideological or cultural guarantee for a nation to hold together. It just depends on human skills. That is why politics, as an arena where different projects are proposed and decided for and against, has never been more important for Indians’ (p. 207).

4. The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection. Semiotext(e) intervention series # 1, Los Angeles, 2009 (orig. pbl. L’insurrection qui vient. Editions La fabrique, Paris, 2007), pp. 9-10.

5. See Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Notes Towards a Lexicon of Urgencies’ (2010) at http://www.curatorsintl.org/index. php/dispatch/posts/notes_towards_a_ lexicon_of_urgencies/

6. See Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Biennials of Resistance: Reflections on the Seventh Gwangju Biennial’, in Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø (eds.), The Biennial Reader. Hatje Cantz/Bergen Kunsthall, Ostfildern/Bergen, 2010, pp. 306-321. The terms ‘biennale’ and ‘biennial’ are used interchangeably in global discourse, depending on specific historical contexts or terminological conventions.

7. See Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote, ‘The Nth Field: The Horizon Reloaded’, in Maria Hlavajova, Simon Sheikh and Jill Winder (eds.), On Horizons: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art. BAK/post editions, Utrecht/Rotterdam, 2011, pp. 16-32.

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